Depressed academic who was ‘sent to Coventry’ wins appeal

EAT rules original tribunal ‘erred in its approach’ towards disability claims

An academic whose colleagues were instructed not to talk to her after she raised complaints about her former employer has won her appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT).  

The EAT found the original tribunal “erred in its approach” towards Professor Roya Sheikholeslami’s claim her former employer discriminated against her because of her disability and failed to make reasonable adjustments.

The EAT also said there “were other errors” by the tribunal which “failed to deal” with aspects of Sheikholeslami’s sex discrimination and victimisation claims. 

Sheikholeslami began work as a professor and chair of chemical process engineering at the University of Edinburgh in May 2007. The tribunal found “an intention on both sides” that Sheikholeslami should stay in her position until retirement. 

Her remuneration package also included the use of a laboratory, which would be brought up to specification, but the lab was not completed until November 2009. 

The tribunal heard Sheikholeslami complained about the delay and other matters to the university, comparing her position to a male colleague who she contended was “given laboratory space and a technician from the outset of his employment”. 

In January 2010, Sheikholeslami was diagnosed with work-related stress and depression, and was absent from work from then onwards. 

Sheikholeslami and another co-worker wrote to the university’s principal in April 2010, raising a grievance relating to sex discrimination. The two argued they were “completely disabled” in their employment “due to gender discrimination”. The university carried out an external diversity review of the school of engineering, which was published in April 2011. 

However, during 2011, members of the school were instructed not to contact Sheikholeslami, except through her solicitors, as she was “in dispute with the school”. The tribunal held this “amounted to sending her to Coventry”, meaning she was effectively ostracised. 

Although Sheikholeslami’s health deteriorated during this time, she continued to discuss with the university ways in which she could return to work.

In October 2011, the university’s HR director prepared a document setting out possible options to extend Sheikholeslami’s stay in the UK in light of her work permit being due to expire in April 2012. The tribunal found the HR director was not positive about the chances of the extension succeeding but had failed to explore all possible options. 

Sheikholeslami was officially dismissed in April 2012. However, she claimed her dismissal on the basis her work permit was due to expire was affected “to avoid the problem of her continued and sustained complaints” of gender and disability discrimination. 

She brought unfair dismissal, sex and disability discrimination claims, as well as claims for notice pay and unpaid holiday pay. In March 2017, the employment tribunal dismissed the sex and disability discrimination claims “save to the extent that certain claims of victimisation succeeded”. The unfair dismissal and outstanding holiday pay claims succeeded. 

Sheikholeslami appealed the ruling. The EAT allowed the appeal in relation to the disability related claims, reasonable adjustment claims and the unlawful sex and victimisation claims. 

Croner associate director Paul Holcroft said this case highlights the need for employers to “take a step back and look at whether the disciplinary issue is linked to the employee’s disability”.

Holcroft added: “The case also confirms that the duty of reasonable adjustments arises where a provision, criterion or practice (PCP) puts a disabled employee at a substantial disadvantage compared to a non-disabled employee. With mental health impairments, reasonable adjustments may not be physical changes to the workplace, as is often the case with physical impairments.” 

Sheikholeslami could not be reached for comment. A University of Edinburgh spokesperson said: “It would be inappropriate to comment on the latest stage in this case while the legal process is ongoing.”